Category Archives: Latin America

Educating Costa Rica: A Master Class in Influence

Costa Rica advertises itself as the “Switzerland of Central America,” but under President Carlos Alvarado’s administration, drug trafficking, narco-wars, homicides, corruption, and foreign state interference into politics and government systems have skyrocketed. These effects can be traced to poor decisions by Carlos Alvarado’s administration. The first was a mishandling of the Nicaraguan immigration crisis; the second, a poorly thought out financial reform. However, by putting the country’s situation under a microscope, one can see the shadowy hand of a foreign state actor at work: Cuba. The Castro government has found Costa Rica’s higher education system, considered one of the best in Latin America, to be a soft entry point into the heart of its democracy.

Costa Rica is clearly undergoing a massive influence campaign from pro-leftist, pro-Castro, and pro-Chavist countries. Cuba, in particular, wields influence through Costa Rica’s higher education system by manipulating education and mobilizing discontented students. A number of influential players within Costa Rica, driven by a mix of personal greed and ideology, use their positions to give Cuba the upper hand. Cuba is not, however, the only one benefitting from the Costa Rican education system’s instability.

Educating Costa Rica

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) and National University (UNA) are the country’s main higher education institutions. They are also a major political force within the Legislative Assembly and have strong ties to the majority party, the left-of-center Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). PAC has led the country since Luis Guillermo Solís’ 2014-18 presidency. Unfortunately for the current administration under Carlos Alvarado, Solís’ legacy included several scandals, rampant corruption, a financial crisis, and social uncertainty.

Soon after his election, Alvarado worsened the situation with two grave miscalculations. He poorly handled a massive wave of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the Ortega dictatorship and then enacted a long-overdue financial reform without proper long-term planning. This provoked a three-month strike at the end of 2018 with massive political, economic, social, financial, and security consequences for Costa Rica.

In the midst of this turmoil, the rectors of UCR and UNA, Henning Jensen Pennington and Alberto Salom, silently began working to protect Costa Rica’s education system from the country’s politics. They acknowledged the ongoing financial crisis but encouraged students to protest financial reforms because of their effect on education sector funds. This “self-protection program” culminated on July 1st, 2019, with the resignation of the Minister of Education, Edgar Mora, due to his alleged lack of planning and management during the financial negotiations. His Vice Minister for Regional Coordination and Institutional Planning, Amparo Pacheco, resigned immediately after.

Not-so-Covert Influencers

Pennington and Salom have long been associated with the current instability in Costa Rica’s education system and are known Cuba supporters. Though Pennington was the stronger supporter of the “leftist insurgent movement” during the 2018 protests, Salom has been an active supporter of cultural exchanges with Cuba since 2011. A former PAC legislator from 2006 to 2010, he is very close to Costa Rica’s political elite and still has considerable support in the Legislative Assembly. During a Presidential visit to Havana in 2016, Alberto Salom signed the agreement of mutual collaboration and exchange with Cuba’s Ministry of Higher Education in his capacity as President of the Costa Rican National Council of University Presidents (CONARE). As it turns out, during Salom’s time as a legislator, his assistant and adviser was none other than Carlos Alvarado.

Thanks to these strategic maneuvers, the rectors gave themselves the tools to legally promote their voices by manipulating student movements. They could freely promulgate their leftist vision and pro-Castro attitudes via university-led education and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Their long-term objective is to spread the “truth” about Cuban Communism through the universities and to maintain complete political, social, and legislative control of the university education sector that yields millions of dollars. Salom’s last “restructuring” project called for a USD $14 million allocation. Both rectors personally supported student uprisings against the redirection of education sector funds towards constructing new university buildings on the disputed basis that doing so would compromise scholarships. The opposition party questioned this before the Legislative Assembly on the suspicion he was diverting it for other purposes. To bolster his view, Salom made university buses available to transport students to protest locations.

In light of government investigations and public concerns over pro-Castro propaganda and ideology, some members of the student body, those associated with the student federation known by its acronym FEUNA, are beginning to question the rectors’ integrity and functionality. Students angered by the manipulation and false information campaign, as well as the betrayal of the universities’ ethical mandate, have publicly declared their dissatisfaction with the rectors’ programs and called for their resignations. Naturally, both refused but Salom went on to highlight how indispensable he is for the future of UNA and its students’ careers. President Alvarado immediately backed him, confirming suspicions about Costa Rica’s highest level of government.

Foreign Education

There are several cases of foreign state actors exploiting universities worldwide. Campuses are fertile ground for raising easily manipulated young dissidents and followers. For Costa Rica, whose geostrategic position is integral in creating a Latin American “sphere of influence”, the level of foreign influence in their education system presents a major issue. Continuing waves of student protests, encouraged by pro-Cuban university leaders, could lead to unrest similar to that which has shaken Latin America in the last few months.

The counterintelligence implications represent another challenge for Costa Rica’s national security. At this point, without a proper threat assessment and operational countermeasures, it may be too late for the country’s intelligence and security agencies to properly engage this threat. If government institutions lack coordination, transparency, and a strong willingness to follow the “rule of law”, the situation will deteriorate further.

Though Cuba may be the primary agent attempting to influence Costa Rica, it does not do so entirely on its own. Cuba’s current tactics have a distinctly Russian flavor. Certainly, if Costa Rica remains a non-aligned stronghold of democracy in the region, Russia will view it as key to expanding its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. In this way, the destabilizing agenda and relationships of a few influential politicians and bureaucrats in San Jose could threaten the non-alignment of the “Switzerland of Central America” and place it within the arena of superpower competition. If there is one thing Costa Ricans should remember from the last time a Castro meddled in their security, it is that then, as now, the Cubans were operating off a Russian lesson plan.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.


[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools (Part 2 of a series)

This is the second part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. You can read part one, “Around the Caribbean, Costa Rica Under Pressure” here.


Featured photo: Costa Rican Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Arturo Fournier Facio waits obediently while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signs a visa-free travel agreement with Costa Rica.


Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has maintained a deep interest in Latin America since before the Second World War and in Costa Rica in particular since at least the 1970s. Their goal was – and remains – to develop a base for espionage and “active measures” as a non-nuclear deterrent against U.S. policies globally. In a 1992 report to Congress, the United States Information Agency defined Soviet active measures as “the manipulative use of slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true information, which the Soviets used to try to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments.” Or, as KGB defector Vasili Mitrokin put it: “political warfare conducted by the Soviet and Russian intelligence services.” Today those active measures are on full display around the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Understanding them requires an examination of the interesting history of active measures in Central America and how they shape Russia’s perception of their importance and effectiveness there.

Old Techniques

In his masterpiece, “The Mitrokin Archive”, the former KGB Major claimed Russia used active measures to manipulate events in Central America as early as 1940. At that time, a Soviet operative named Iosif Romualdovic Grigulevic took a leading role in assassinating Bolsheviks and Communists that were not loyal to Joseph Stalin. Grigulevic counted among his accomplishments the attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky at his villa in Mexico City and the sabotage of Nazi supply chains from the region during the Second World War. More striking perhaps is that he eventually assumed cover as a Costa Rican diplomat with the false identity Teodoro B. Castro. Posing as the illegitimate son of a prominent but very dead Costa Rican (his “father” was in reality, childless), Grigulevic served as the ambassador of the Republic of Costa Rica to both Italy and Yugoslavia between 1952 and 1954. His mission in Belgrade was to assassinate Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, a task interrupted by Stalin’s death in 1953.

In order to “penetrate Costa Rica’s diplomatic corps”, Grigulevic posed as a wealthy Costa Rican businessman; a coffee expert with links to international coffee magnates. He used his money and connections to cultivate a relationship with Jose Figueres Ferrer (three-time President of Costa Rica) based on a joint venture to sell coffee in Europe. Figueres was an unlikely target. During his first term as President of Costa Rica (1948-49), Figueres banned the Communist Party from politics. It was not until he sought a third term in 1970 that he considered accepting funding from Communist sources. According to Mitrokin, Figueres held secret meetings with the KGB Resident in Costa Rica, A. I. Mosolov who eventually funneled more than $300,000 to Figueres from the KGB in exchange for a promise to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Shortly after his re-election, Figueres did exactly that, oiling the government machinery that reopened the Soviet Embassy.

New Tools

Russian active measures did not end with the Cold War. If anything, Russia’s intelligence services dramatically expanded their use in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. At any given time, observers can find evidence of ongoing Russian meddling in the United States, Syria, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Poland, and of course, Latin America. Modern active measures use hostile social manipulation through media and radical-right groups as agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites. The tools are new but the techniques are not.

According to Russia’s 2015 Military Strategy, Moscow has two goals in Latin America. The first is to develop a functional alliance with a Central American country. Nicaragua is the natural first choice with its strategic geography, leftist government, and importance to a coalition of states closely aligned with Moscow; China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. Russia’s second goal is to develop collective security arrangements that can serve as non-nuclear deterrents against US policies elsewhere. A plan proposed in a May 2015 article by two well-known military thinkers: Aleksandr Perendzhiyev from the Association of Independent Military Political Experts, and Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a member of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, advocated the creation of combined Russian-Chinese units in Nicaragua and the stationing of Russian troops in Venezuela and Brazil. More ominous was their suggestion of placing a task force off the coasts of the US – an oblique reference to Cuba – that would have American territory in its sights. Such a “grand coalition” could include Iran as well and would be supported by a “major diplomatic and information offensive”; a euphemism for active measures.

The plan to build non-nuclear deterrents may already be in operation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu started in 2015 with an official visit to Nicaragua that likely put the finishing touches on a deal to install a Global Satellite Navigation System (GLONASS) tracking station on the outskirts of Managua. In 2017, Russia opened a counter-narcotics training center there that gives them access to security officers from all over the Central American region. This represented an expansion of an already robust military and diplomatic presence in Nicaragua — estimated to be 400 to 500 people at any given time — that reflects increased Russian military engagement around the region. Venezuela is also experiencing a well-documented increase of Russian military advisors and exercises, as well as private military contractors working for the Russian government. In 2019, the Russian Navy sent its first-in-class frigate, Admiral Gorshkov (FFG 454) to Havana. The Admiral Gorshkov was allegedly transporting unspecified intelligence assets and was joined by at least two Russian support vessels.

Measuring Up Costa Rica

Well on its way to achieving its strategic basing and non-nuclear deterrence goals, Russia can use its position in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela to influence all the other countries in Central and South America with Costa Rica as the natural next target for active measures. Accordingly, a series of political and economic phenomena have affected Costa Rica in ways detrimental to its stability since late 2018, leading one high level Costa Rican politician to claim it was occurring “under the direction of the Russian Federation.”

From September to November 2018, Costa Rica suffered a massive strike that paralyzed the economy. Ostensibly a response to a tax reform proposal, the strike served instead to focus public opinion against the government’s decision to accept an influx of refugees from Nicaragua. The strike, and subsequent manifestations of xenophobia in the capital were suspected to be the work of Nicaraguan and Cuban intelligence operatives, some of who are believed to have infiltrated amongst the refugees. Their work included a series of violent incidents disguised as crime including: acts of sabotage to the media company, Teletica, an oil pipeline, and the national electric and telecommunications company. The attempted assassination in July 2019 of Zoila Rosa Voilo, a member of the Legislative Assembly, and a wave of violent crimes unfairly attributed to Nicaraguan refugees is also likely to be the result of an ongoing intelligence operation to weaken Costa Rican resistance to foreign influence.

The destabilization of Costa Rica’s democratic system is the endgame of Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations in the service of a broader Russian ambition to establish an economic, political, and geo-strategic sphere of interest in Latin America. The extent to which this is the outcome of a well-laid strategic plan that encompasses Russian activity across the region or just the Kremlin’s uncoordinated vision for influence is something that cannot be determined. However, the tradecraft used, especially for the massive disinformation campaign, coupled with the temporal coincidence of some Russia-friendly decisions by San Jose, suggests the suspected Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations affecting Costa Rica are in fact coordinated with and supported by Moscow. Measuring up to the threat will require Costa Rica to master new techniques as well as the new tools available for influence.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.